Down 5-2 in the second set Sunday, Monica Seles played like she had a plane to catch.
Truth be known, she did.
Finding herself in a struggle for the first time all week at the IGA Superthrift Tennis Classic, Seles rallied for another straight-set win in the final, defeating France’s Nathalie Dechy 6-1, 7-6 (7-3).
“I’m here, I’ve got to catch a 4 o’clock flight,” said an out-of-breath Seles, greeting the post-match media contingent shortly before 3 p.m. That was less than half an hour after finishing off her 45th career tournament singles victory before a second consecutive sellout crowd of 2,707 at Abe Lemons Arena.
Maybe Seles didn’t need to miss that plane. Or, playing in her fourth match since September because of injury, maybe she wanted no part of a third set.
“I knew I was pretty close to it, and if that’s what would be, fine,” said the second-seeded Seles, who won $33,000 with the title. “But I preferred not to, that’s for sure.
“You have to raise the level of your game, and I did that. But, again, I prefer not to be in that situation again.”
In her three previous matches — all straight-set sweeps — Seles didn’t even need an hour to dispose of Italy’s Francesca Lubiani, France’s Sarah Pitkowski and South Africa’s Amanda Coetzer, the world’s 16th-ranked player.
So excuse Seles, ranked No. 14 in the world, if she booked the earliest flight out of Oklahoma City for Phoenix, where she’ll land today and prepare for the State Farm Women’s Tennis Classic in Scottsdale.
Seles is a former No. 1 player in the world who had won 44 tournament titles and almost $12 million before Sunday. The 21- year-old Dechy, unseeded although ranked No. 26, was playing in her first WTA Tour final.
Still, it wasn’t easy for Seles on Sunday, at least not after Dechy adjusted to the atmosphere.
“I was feeling very well from yesterday,” said Dechy, who earned $17,500 as the tournament runner-up. “And before the match I was feeling good. I felt that I could do a big step. But those first few games were a little bit tough.
“I didn’t serve very well. I think I was looking around. It was my first finals, so maybe it took me a lot of time to get going. But then in the second set I felt really well.”
Felt well and played well.
Dechy, playing more aggressively, broke Seles to go up 4-2 in the second set, then held serve after facing break point to push her lead to 5-2.
And already passengers were arriving at Will Rogers Airport for that flight to Phoenix.
So Seles turned to her big serve — clocked consistently at 100 mph-plus — to close out the game that pulled her to within 5-3. Then she broke Dechy at love to get back on serve, before firing two aces in a love game that brought her back even at 5-5.
After both players held serve to make it 6-6, Seles owned the tiebreaker, getting a mini-break on the first point and romping 7-3.
“She played very well,” Seles said of her first-time foe. “She was very aggressive. If I hit anything short, it was pretty much a winner (for her). I think her serve started picking up, and she’s an extremely good mover.
“It was a very see-saw match. I think she started off slower, then I started off slower in the second set. It was very back and forth, especially in the second, when there were a couple of key points that went her way first, then they started to go my way.”
And when those key points shifted back to Seles, Dechy was in trouble.
“She served really well,” Dechy said. “And then on my serve, I don’t know what happened. I didn’t do any unforced errors. I think she just upgraded her level.”
The ultimate level Seles is striving for is a return to Grand Slam contender status, coming back from a stress fracture in her foot. Still, she said the victory in Oklahoma City wouldn’t soon be forgotten.
“It fits in very high up, just because I didn’t play for five months coming in here and didn’t get that much chance at practice,” Seles said. “I wasn’t very sure of my game. It’s great to know that in a short amount of time, I can play well and that I didn’t lose as much when I left the tour in September.”
As for Dechy, she enjoyed her first final, despite the outcome.
“It was a nice feeling to be in the finals,” said Dechy, who had her best year on tour in 1999. “I wish I could have stayed longer on the court because I was really starting to enjoy it. Maybe next year. Next time.”
Or maybe sooner, somewhere else.
Like Seles, Dechy is on her way to Arizona.
“Next week at Scottsdale, it’s outdoors,” said Dechy. “We just have one day to get used to it and that’s a really tough draw also. But I’m happy. I think I’m going to be very confident. I hope if it’s not next week, it’s going to be the week after.”